Junaid Khan was my son.
I did not know him when he lived. But in his death, in the way he died, I mourn him like a son.
His dreams were unfamiliar to my agnostic world. He wanted to become a scholar and teacher of the Quran, and perhaps, one day, an imam. For this, from the age of six, he was sent to a madrasa, in neighbouring Nuh in Haryana. He was a sincere and bright student, who had memorised the Quran, all 80,000 words of the holy text. He was to be declared a hafiz in recognition of this achievement. Hafiz in Arabic means both one who remembers, but also one who is a custodian of the sacred words of the Quran.
He would return to his home only once a year, during the month of Ramzan. This year he proudly recited the entire Quran from memory to pious gatherings of his own village over 20 days. He had completed this recitation of the Quran one day before he died. In appreciation, the villagers had made small offerings of money to him. His father added his contribution, and with a total sum of Rs 1,500 he set out with his brothers to the old city of Delhi to purchase new clothes, prayer mats and some gifts.
He wore a skull-cap on his head. This was to be his fatal undoing.
I travelled with a band of my friends to his village, Khandawali, in Faridabad district of Haryana. We felt compelled to say to his bereaved family that we grieved with them after Junaid’s brutal lynching. We knew that these words may mean little to a family that has been so brutally dispossessed, but for whatever they may be worth, we felt that these words still must be spoken. Just two months earlier, we had made a similar journey to share in the same way in the pain of Pehlu Khan’s family in Nuh. I wondered how many such journeys — of solidarity, of atonement — will we have to make before we resolve to say as a country, no more. Until then, we need at least to say to those devastated by hate violence: We share your anger. We share your sorrow. It does not make your pain less. But know at least that you are not alone.
Junaid’s father, Jalaluddin, less than 50 years old, looked both numb and stunned, as though he still could not comprehend or accept what had happened. He was unused to the large crowds that had gathered outside his small home. In one corner, a plainclothes local police inspector was grilling his sons about the details of the incident, but curiously writing nothing in his notebook. A village official came in and said peremptorily to Jalaluddin that he must clean up his house because a senior politician, a former chief minister, would be visiting later in the day.
Jalaluddin accepted our words of condolence wordlessly. “My sons are very frightened,” he only said. “I hope my older boy Shakir, who is in hospital, gets well soon. He has two small children.” The women in our group went in and sat with Junaid’s mother, who was inconsolable. CPM leader Subhashini Ali was also with her. “My son Junaid was too young to understand that he should not have worn a skull cap,” his mother Saira Begum mourned. My friend John Dayal went into the women’s chamber and said to Saira that he had brought a prayer from his wife for her. They prayed together.
We sat outside with Hashim, Junaid’s 18-year-old brother, who had a beard and skullcap, and was also knifed in the train. He spoke to us of the horrors of that evening. The story is now well-known. After their Eid shopping at Jama Masjid, the three brothers took a local train from the Sadar Bazar station and found seats. Crowds entered in Okhla, and Junaid gave up his seat to an old man. A group of 15 men asked the others roughly to vacate their seats. When they refused, they slapped and beat them, threw off their skullcaps, pulled the beards of the older boys, abused them for their faith, and called them Pakistanis, beef-eaters and the circumcised.
Seeing the situation worsen frighteningly, one of them managed to call their brothers in the village, urging them to come to their rescue to Ballabhgarh station, where they were to alight for their village. The station came, but the men did not allow the boys to leave the train. The brothers who had come to their rescue were also pulled in.
In the nine minutes from Ballabhgarh to the next station Asaoti, the men took out knives and stabbed the three brothers several times, even as they screamed for help. Not one person came to their rescue. A few took videos and pictures on their phones instead, as the compartment filled with blood. Several egged on the lynch mob. These included the old man to whom Junaid had given his seat.
At Asaoti, the three boys were thrown off the train. Some of the killers may have also got off in the melee. The train stopped just for a minute and then went ahead on its journey. The brothers were desperate, but no one at the station came to their rescue. No passenger, no rail staff, no policepersons, and none of the vendors and shopkeepers at the station. Junaid bled to death, his head cradled in his brother’s lap. Two other brothers also lay wounded. They carried the boys across the tracks to the entrance of the railway station. One of the boys managed to contact a private hospital in Palwal. Its ambulance came after 45 minutes. Junaid was declared dead when they reached the hospital.
My colleagues and I drove to Asaoti station after we left the family in their grief. We spoke to the rail officials at the station, and to the shopkeepers around the station.
We heard only these words from every one of them — none of us saw anything that evening; we saw nothing at all.
Junaid was my son. He was son also to the people on the train compartment of his last journey, and those at the railway station where he breathed his last. And yet they let him die.